Wild leek, wild garlic,
By Scott Sheu
A cousin of the onion, leek, and garlic plant, the ramp is an equally stinky plant that has found increasing popularity in the American diet. The name “ramp” comes from its similarity to an English plant called the “ransom” (Allium ursinus) which was called “ramson” in earlier times. In fact, Chicago’s name comes from a Menomini Indian word for the plant, shika’ko, which used to grow abundantly in the area (Small).
These slow growing plants can often be found in large colonies. The ramp is distinguished in springtime by its two slender, glossy green leaves that grow from bulbs. The leaves wither by the time the stalk matures, on which clusters of small, white flowers grow. As the plant matures, the layered bulbs also grow larger.
The ramp finds it native home in eastern North America; its range stretches from Nova Scotia down through to Georgia and west to Iowa. Despite this range, the ramp is commonly referred to as an Appalachian vegetable, due to the mountain region’s favorable growing conditions as well as the plant’s centrality in the region’s diet. Ramps typically grow under the shade of deciduous trees in rich soil.
Historically, they have been gathered wild instead of cultivated. Because they were one of the first plants to emerge with the onset of spring, ramps became celebrated in many Appalachian festivals. A recent culinary revival has increased interest in the ramp, though now demand may be exceeding supply.
Because of they were one of the first greens to appear in spring, ramps were considered an important “tonic” by providing vitamins and minerals that had not been available during the winter (Davis & Greenfield). The Cherokee boiled or fried the young plants, while the Iroquois consumed them seasoned with salt and pepper (Moerman). Both the Objibwa and Menominee dried and stored parts of the ramp to be stored for winter months (Moerman).
The ramp’s bulb and its leaves are consumed when the plant is still young. The ramp is similar in taste to the spring onion, but with an aromatic pungency closer to garlic. In Appalachia, they are commonly consumed by frying them in butter or animal fat, though they are also consumed raw in salads (Smith). They are frequently consumed with potatoes or scrambled eggs, and used in soups and other savory dishes (Davis & Greenfield).
Their high vitamin content and blood-cleansing properties meant that the ramps were highly prized by the American Indians for their nutritional value as well. The Chippewa decocted the root to induce vomiting, while the Cherokee consumed the ramp to treat colds and made a juice from the plant to treat earache (Moerman). A tonic of the plant was used by the Iroquois to treat intestinal worms (Moerman).
Angier, Bradford. Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. [Harrisburg, Pa.]: Stackpole, 1974. Google Books. Web.
Darke, Rick. The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2002. Google Books. Web.
Moerman, Daniel. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber, 1998.
Small, Ernest. Culinary Herbs. Ottawa: NRC Research, 2006. Print.
Smith, Andrew F. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.